Taking a Different Path to the American Dream

by Jul 11, 2019Refugees & Immigrants0 comments

Jean Paul Mugisha celebrates earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Portland in electrical engineering with his family. His educational journey started in a refugee camp.

Jean Paul Mugisha embodies the American dream. By studying and working hard, he has made a better life for himself and his family. What makes Jean Paul’s dream unique is he’s spent most of his life in a refugee camp.

Born in the Congo, Jean Paul’s family fled violence when he was three. They ended up in a refugee camp in Rwanda where he, his parents and seven siblings lived for 17 years. “Normal” life was eating one meal a day, walking up to two miles for water, and growing up without electricity.

With little to do, Jean Paul focused on school. He finished the camp’s formal education in the ninth grade. It looked like his education would stop there, because high school cost money, and his family survived on 24 cents a day. But “luck” intervened, as the woman who ran the camp’s school paid for Jean Paul to attend a boarding high school outside the camp. His life changed

“That’s when I realized I wasn’t like any of the other kids,” Jean Paul said. “Being a refugee was something negative. It meant you were weak and couldn’t do anything for yourself. You didn’t have any rights.”

Jean Paul hid the fact he was a refugee from his classmates. He started eating three meals a day. He studied hard and ended up as the top student in his class and the number two student in Rwanda. The top 50 students in the country were sent abroad for higher education.

“When the time came, my hopes were crushed,” he said. “There was no scholarship for college because I was a refugee.”

After a year of teaching at the camp, Jean Paul earned a scholarship from a nonprofit to attend college in Rwanda. Eight months into courses, his family learned they were moving to the United States. Our Refugee Resettlement team helped his family make Portland their home.

Jean Paul was the only family member proficient in English. At 20, he had to lead, navigate and negotiate for his family. He enrolled in Portland Community College. When school and family commitments conflicted, he called our Case Manager Aline Ndemeye, who helped the family navigate services.

“It was the best transition working with Lutheran Community Services,” Jean Paul said. “I thought it would be a lot more difficult.”

Jean Paul’s studies paid off. He was working at an internship with businessman and community leader Ryan Hoppes. In turn, Ryan introduced Jean Paul to the President of the University of Portland, who offered him a full-ride scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

Today, Jean Paul is a test development hardware engineer at Intel. He sees himself as a leader in his family and his community. His family is thriving. He wants to continue his education and move up at Intel. But, he remembers what it’s like to eat one meal a day.

“I appreciate what Lutheran Community Services has done for us,” he said. “They have created many connections for us with different people, and they are still helping our community.”

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